“Your jacket. It’s quite, squamous.”
I think Devendra Banhart just taught me a new word. “Kind of reptilian” he clarifies, deeply riveted by the seams and folds of my leather jacket. I take a closer look at the sleeve and realise that it is, in fact, quite squamous.
Banhart enjoys words. “They’re the thing I put the most work into,” he tells me. He starts with an empty notebook, “a Moleskin, or whatever,” and begins to fill it with them. Then, he sets about reducing the entire mass of convoluted composition down to one paragraph or even, if he’s lucky, one sentence. “Let’s go shopping with two dollars and try to make an entire meal,” he says. “An economy of words, that’s what we’re shooting for.” What eventually emerges through the process of chipping away at that great hulk of rampant thought is, hopefully, a song. And then, hopefully, an entire album. “I’m not interested in the way the words are sung, I’m interested in the way they sound when I read them out. The music comes much later,” he explains. “When I have the lyrics then I make notes around those lyrics, orbiting them. Then I pull meanings. It’s basically pre-production.”
His latest album, Mala, the eighth in his line of musical genera, was birthed in this very manner and in many ways epitomises his quest for word economy. In fact the title track – a sweet and lilting whisper of a thing – is but a sneeze long and contains no words at all. “I like the way you said that,” he remarks, “a sneeze-long.” It seems the only word needed for his title track was the title itself. “I chose the title, Mala, because of its malleability, plasticity and ubiquitous nature. It’s in so many different languages. In Gaelic it means ‘plastic bag’, in Hindu it means ‘prayer bead’, in Italian it means ‘gangster’, in Serbian it means ‘little’ and so on. I was like, my God I want to find a word like this word. And that word was the most like that word I could find. Also, it’s a pretty word.”
He’s clearly happy with the title, but when pressed as to how he feels about the completed work now that it’s poised for release and out of his hands, Banhart cannot concede to any feelings of accomplishment that exceed a measly “quantum bit”, a micro specimen of satisfaction – the mere mention of which apparently inflating the idea too far beyond itself – that exists only in relativity to the grave disappointment he felt regarding aspects of the last album, 2009’s What Will We Be. “There are actual songs I really wish I had not put on that album. At the time I remember thinking, ah, who cares? But I paid for that kind of complacency, irresponsibility and arrogance with a lifetime of regret for those songs. So there is a feeling of success in that (with Mala) there isn’t a ‘what was I thinking?’ But of course there are still many problems with it, many things I would alter.”
He is hard on himself, as artists can be, inflicted with a strain of perfectionism. But conspicuous in his body of work is also the kind of flexibility and willingness to boldly experiment that seems necessary for free and fluid creative exploration. Banhart’s repertoire of releases showcases a diversity of style and sound uncommon in the work of the majority of modern musicians. His music cannot be pinned to a genre, or even properly defined. Even the best attempts at describing it – ‘New Weird American’, ‘Freak folk’, ‘Lo-fi Latin’ among others – have fallen woefully short of nailing his idiosyncratic sound. As an artist Banhart is somewhat of a pasticheur, an approach that has no doubt been informed by his unique beginnings and wild array of influences.
Born in Houston, Texas, Banhart moved to Caracas, Venezuela, at the age of two with his mother when his parents separated. They were followers of the spiritual guru Prem Rawat who suggested the name Devendra, a synonym for Indra the Hindu King of the Gods. His middle name, Obi, was bestowed after a trip to the cinema to see Star Wars. “Also, it was the brand of tampon my mum was using” he adds. “So if you combine the two you get a very Zen tampon.” Banhart eventually returned to the US as a teenager and settled in California to attend the San Francisco Art Institute on a scholarship. But like all good free spirits blessed by gurus and raised by good, upstanding hippies, he dropped out of college in 2000 to travel and settle in Paris for a while (France, not Texas) where he really began to enter into his own as a musician. A passion for which was discovered through unlikely circumstances at an early age.
“My parents gave me three cassettes when I was seven” he tells me. “Guns and Roses’ Appetite for Destruction, Nirvana’s Nevermind, and the Rolling Stones’ Greatest Hits. And I’m thinking this is great, wow I love this, but I don’t sound like those guys. And then one day my mum wasn’t home and I just had this intuitive, almost magnetic pull towards opening up her closet and grabbing one of her dresses and putting it on. It’s unclear to me what exactly the impetus was for that at that age. I didn’t grow up, as most of us didn’t, in a culture and society that was supportive of that behaviour. But I felt almost possessed. So I put on this dress and starting singing as this woman and I thought, oh this makes sense. It wasn’t a sexual thing but that profound experience of thinking, I can sing as this woman who is me but not me, was the moment I thought, now I can sing.”
Having discovered his voice tucked away in a woman’s closet, a young Banhart decided to present his first song to a gathering of close relatives. It was a little number he penned when he first learnt about plastic surgery and connected the dots to ageing and then human mortality, appropriately titled We’re All Going to Die. He was nine. Needless to say he was hotly reprimanded by his horrified audience and told never to sing again. “It was putting on that dress and then that complete, across the board rejection, when everybody said stop, that was the catalyst for wanting to do this.”
There is still a pale streak of that defiant nine-year-old in grown-up Devendra. You get the sense that he’s a little allergic to being pegged and pigeonholed, as people like to do in his line of work, and that challenging popular perception is a subtle undercurrent in his artistic and personal choices. These days there’s little evidence of the hippy shtick he first became known for in his early years as a musician. His free-flowing locks have long been lopped, the headbands and crystals have been ditched in favour of stylish dress-shirts buttoned to a choke and sharp tailoring, and when asked if he wouldn’t mind doing a shirtless shot for our shoot he promptly replies, “I think I’m too old for that shit”.
Banhart is evolving as an artist and as a man, a metamorphosis that he at least in some part attributes to his partner of “two years and six days”, fellow artist Ana Kras. “I don’t think I influence her but she definitely influences me,” he tells me with that characteristic self-deprecation. “She’s introduced me to a whole world of design I didn’t know about. Half of my drawings now look like lamps! She studied interior architecture and industrial design, and I’ve only approached those things from an intuitive, instinctive level. She’s teaching me about it even though she doesn’t care about that shit at the same time. I’m the one who’ll be like, ‘so is this an Eames chair?’ And she’s like, ‘you idiot’.”
Kras has also been gently coaxing Banhart out of his shell. While he wouldn’t describe himself as shy exactly, he does admit to experiencing a degree of social anxiety. “I’m just kind of awkward. I don’t really like talking out loud … I used to hate social situations but Ana’s helping me with that a lot. Now I can go to dinner and I’m not waiting for the night to end or hiding in the bathroom. It’s a new thing for me.”
But despite his claims of social ineptness and crushing artistic dissatisfaction, Banhart emanates a quiet confidence and willingness to shift and evolve that is evidenced in his work. Mala feels like an evolution for him. It listens with a level of coherency of sequence, sound, and narrative that mirror’s an artist who is increasingly connected with his ever-developing brand of personal truth and not simply an artifact of a previously cultivated identity. Banhart has learnt from his past mistakes – the so called “arrogance, complacency and irresponsibility”– that has lead him to certain regrets. He tells his stories both visually and musically not to assert an identity or express his feelings, but rather to simply tell a story as simply as possible. “Therapy is therapeutic. Music is music,” he says. “When I play or make art I don’t do it to express myself, I don’t turn to it to deal with my emotions, it’s my work, it’s my love, it’s my religion. I chose it and it’s everything to me, but it isn’t my catharsis. Rarely are my songs autobiographical.”
Currently the story that’s capturing Banhart’s imagination is the fascinating, flamboyant and darkly compelling transgender scene in New York in the late 1980s as portrayed in the culturally poignant documentary Paris is Burning. So inspired was Banhart by the culture and characters depicted in the film, he alongside his long-time collaborator Noah Georgeson, decided to compose a song for each of the ‘houses’ or clans to which the characters belonged. “We don’t want to re-imagine the soundtrack because it’s already incredible,” he tells me. “But that film is so powerful on so many levels – it’s such a beautiful statement. It’s a political and social statement as well as an artistic one – and also just a film full of amazing characters worthy of songs.”
That Banhart would identify with and draw inspiration from Paris is Burning is no great surprise. As an artist he is deeply interested in the fringes of humanity as evidenced in the artists, books, and various works that excite him and that he is enthusiastically scribbling down for me in supremely elegant script, filling an entire page. “This is fun!” he declares, before rollicking off on a tangent about the life of one of his favourite musicians, the late Arthur Russell. “He was a really important musician. One of my heroes. It’s difficult to even talk about.” But he does, with the gusto and animation of a fanciful child diving into a story and pulling it to life for anyone who’ll care to listen. And herein lies the charm of his music: it draws from life a capsule of its strangeness and its beauty and delivers it with a spike of the conduit’s own singular flavour. If only for the length of a sneeze.
Banhart’s indefinable sound is somehow transportive – sometimes playful and absurd, sometimes disturbingly dark, and sometimes unabashedly and un-ironically romantic.
His songs are a diapasonal journey of sorts through the unique and complex catalogue of influences lived, pondered and absorbed by a man who, like the rest of us, doesn’t have it all figured out. Perhaps he has never reached a satisfactory degree of artistic and professional success by his own standards, but these are some pretty phenomenal results to have been yielded in the attempt. “I think everything I’ve ever wanted to express can be summed up perfectly by John Cage who said ‘I have nothing to say, and I’m saying it.’ When I heard that I thought, that’s it.”